HALTOM CITY — Lt. Greg Wagner has seen a lot over his 25 years as a Haltom City firefighter. But the scene he found Thursday afternoon threatens to forever haunt him.
A small home was engulfed in smoke — with a family trapped inside.
Lt. Wagner almost immediately began performing CPR on three-year-old Jayleen Rayos. He rode with her in the ambulance, fighting all the way to the hospital to resuscitate her.
His best efforts couldn’t save the little girl, but it would take several hours for the enormity of the loss to hit him.
“I thought I was doing good. I got home,” he said later. “And my wife... the first thing she said was, ‘I’m sorry.’ And the first thing I did was I broke down. I never cried that hard in my life. I actually cried so hard there was actually pain in my heart.”
Many had heavy hearts after the smoke cleared and reality hit neighbors, family members, and first responders — four people had died inside the smoldering home.
Maritza Garces, 53, was killed along with her three grandchildren: two-month-old Jaime Moran, three-year-old Jayleen Rayos, and Gene Rayos, who was five.
“The death of the adults we can tolerate,” said Haltom City Deputy Fire Chief Joel Thompson, “but you have to remember: Nearly every one of my firefighters also have young children, and so when we deal with death of a child, it strikes home.”
Faced with such trauma, the Haltom City Fire Department made the rare move of providing a group therapy session for its firefighters who responded that day.
Eighteen firefighters spent two hours at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth in a therapy session known as "critical incident stress management."
Specialists trained in child loss helped guide the firefighters through their grief by discussing what they were feeling, and sharing advice.
“That helps out a lot if we’re able to find somebody just to talk with and to listen to us,” Lt. Wagner said shortly after the meeting.
The department has long offered individual counseling to officers who request it, but Dep. Chief Thompson said this is the first time his firefighters have tried a group setting. It’s a departure from the old mentality of encouraging firefighters to deal with the trauma privately, he said.
“The culture of our business is to go about your business and get ready for the next one,” Thompson added. “We’ve learned that we can’t carry that with us. We have to have an avenue to try and expel the negative feelings from the incident.”
Lt. Randy Harris, who discovered Garces in the burning home, found the therapy to be helpful. In the past, he said, he’s seen firefighters quit after working one too many grisly scenes.
He wishes they instead had received help to deal with the trauma.
The mentality within the fire station used to be: “You’re a fireman, suck it up. You’re tough,” he said, but added: “We’re human, just like everybody else.”